The complex exercise of applying to study

For aspiring Otago Polytechnic students, applying to study (either online or on paper) was a relatively complex and slow process, and often required them to submit additional material in electronic or hardcopy format.

The data collected from the application forms was routed as an email to the polytechnic’s registry, and hardcopy documents delivered to a physical in-tray. All data was then manually entered and recorded against each applicant.  

Due to the manual processes required to submit applications to the approvals committee for each school, the time between cut-off and acceptance (or otherwise) for the most popular courses could be months. So, to hedge their bets, students would also apply for alternative courses at Otago, as well as other polytechnics and universities, while simultaneously — and anxiously — awaiting NCEA results to see which courses they’d qualify for. 

Applications to study aren’t accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, especially for some of the most in-demand courses, and each course has specific requirements. Naturally, schools want to  select the best students for each programme, so they review every qualifying application.

To ensure that they only put forward students who meet course requirements, registry staff needed to manually review, validate, and collate applicants’ certificates and evidentiary documentation. As each school has dedicated resources in the registry to manage their course applications, the workload varied from one person to the next.

Once finalised, each student’s information was printed and added to a manilla folder of fellow learners vying for acceptance into the same course. On D-day, the folders were personally delivered to the applications approvals committee for each school, where aspirants were reviewed and sorted into ‘make an offer’, ‘waitlist’ and ‘decline’ piles.

The final decision list was emailed back to the registry office, and staff would contact each candidate to let them know the outcome, and send an offer where appropriate.

Students socialising in a canteen.

Moving forward

“While our human-intensive application process worked, it was slow, inefficient, and frustrating for students and polytechnic staff alike. It was critical that we could provide our potential learners with an outstanding experience from the moment of first engagement, before they even knew they wanted to study with us.”

Steven Turnbull, CIO of Otago Polytechnic.

Turnbull and his team had already identified gaps in the applications process at a time where the polytechnic and other higher education institutions and universities were competing for their share of students. Otago Polytechnic had previously worked with Fusion5 to develop and deploy an award-winning internal service desk platform using Microsoft Dynamics 365, so extending the solution’s powerful CRM (Customer Engagement) capabilities was a natural next step.

“When we chose Fusion5 for this project,” says Turnbull, “some of the core reasoning was that we’d worked with them previously. But it also mattered to us that they’d designed, developed, and worked with student management systems and the enquiry management process with other universities. In some respects, they had more expertise in the education sector than any other partner at the time. And after this project, they definitely have!

“The value Fusion5 brought was that they knew our business and they knew the sector. Having a Fusion5 project manager who could dive into the detail, draw up process maps and pull together all the content that we needed, helped us realise that the project was significantly larger than we thought it was.”

The transformation project started in late 2018 and went live in July of 2020.

CS - Open Poly - Phase 2 CS - Open Poly - Phase 2

“When we chose Fusion5 for this project, some of the core reasoning was that we’d worked with them previously. But it also mattered to us that they’d designed, developed, and worked with student management systems and the enquiry management process with other universities. In some respects, they had more expertise in the education sector than any other partner at the time. And after this project, they definitely have.”

Steven Turnbull | CIO, Otago Polytechnic

Is that the real you?

To speed up the application process, Fusion5 worked with the polytechnic’s internal team to develop a dedicated portal where hopeful students can log in using RealMe (or another accepted authentication mechanism). This portal enables the polytechnic to validate the applicant's identity and share information in confidence.

Nearly all international students come to New Zealand through an agency, so the project included creating a portal for international recruiters to upload bulk applications on behalf of their clients. The polytechnic works directly with the agent, making offers to successful students through them. Under New Zealand law, all students are required to personally agree to the offer. This was previously done on paper, but the new portal expedites the process of finalising the agreement by collecting an electronic signature from the learner.

The portals for the local students and international agents have the same look and feel. And both are designed so a learner can apply to multiple courses. “As an example,” says Turnbull, “someone who is applying for nursing, which is a very busy programme with significant entry requirements, may also apply for occupational therapy, midwifery or the Polytechnic’s bridging programme as a backup.”

A dynamic process

A key difference for students between the old application scheme and the new one is how they can interact with the programme requirements. Previously, if an applicant needed more information or guidance, they had to email a contact in the registry department. Given that the polytechnic has thousands of learners, it created a huge workload for the registry to respond to emails, and request and track the progress of incoming documentation.

Now, the system tells applicants what the requirements are for the programme in advance, so they can upload all the necessary documentation via the portal. The experience is personalised, and data prepopulated based on previous visits to the portal and areas of interest.

NCEA results are automatically matched against candidates’ records using their unique NSN (National Student Number) so the polytechnic can use that data to make offers based on entry requirements.

“Importantly, there are no gaps for a learner to get misplaced once they apply through the CRM. The whole process is designed to make sure that we stay in contact, and get a result back to them quickly.”

Steven Turnbull, CIO of Otago Polytechnic.

The changes are significant for a generation born in the age of apps, says Turnbull. “We’re dealing with a modern workforce. The people coming to study with us have never lived in an age without the internet — so online application processing is native to them. Overwhelmingly the expectation is that they can do it all themselves and they don’t really have to talk to someone. And now, that’s largely the case. There are still some complexities which require personal attention, but for the majority of the programmes the school doesn’t need to interact with the applicant at all. The entire process can be handled through registry and by the learner online."

That’s a big win for academic administration within the schools and also within the registry team.

A learning curve

The timing for the new application process go-live couldn’t have been better, says Turnbull.

“We had a dramatic increase in application numbers after COVID, so we’ve all been grateful for the new system. It would have been a nightmare using the old approach. Despite our registry team having to learn a new system and processes, the new one has made the sheer volume of applications easier to manage. But everyone understood that it would alleviate some of the constraints they were working under, so they came out the other side really well.

“Despite our main applications process being fully documented, I don’t think we realised how incredibly complex it was until we started the project. We found a lot of subprocesses had evolved over time due to ever-changing Government requirements, and they hadn’t been officially captured. This is easier to manage now — our skilled internal IT team can make most changes.”

Just partway into 2021 and the polytechnic has already exceeded its 100% cap on head count for the year. Luckily, the polytechnic had been approved to grow up to 112% or it would have had the somewhat enviable problem of closing off all applications for remaining semesters.

Turnbull says that the polytechnic experienced up to 10% of abandoned applications per annum to study under the old system. With the new system, the reporting to date indicates they can expect a drop to 4%. “Using the past four years application data, we average 5,500 applications for study for the January enrolment period. This kept our registry team of 11 flat out for about three months. This last January period, we processed 16,500 applications with the same staff headcount. There is no way we would have been able to achieve that under the previous approach."

“Our vision is to have a completely digital platform which supports marketing campaigns to attract new learners, and once they’ve enrolled, guides them through their study lifecycle right the way to maintaining a strong alumni connection. With our streamlined and largely automated application process in place, we’re certainly on track to realise that vision.”

Steven Turnbull, CIO of Otago Polytechnic.

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